Checking In: 4 Questions to Ask Teachers About Professional Learning Goals
We’re quickly approaching spring, a time of year where two distinct feelings tend to emerge in schools and districts around the country.
The first is the realization that you’re in a sprint to the finish line called “The Last Day of School,” and it’s all you can do to buckle up and hang on. Simultaneously, there’s the knowledge that even with the fast-paced schedule, the demands and the expectations of the year will continue.
As school leaders work through what to prioritize over the next few months amid competing priorities, be sure to take the time to meet with your teachers and team members to get a pulse on their professional learning goals. Having quality conversations around professional growth gives you the opportunity to energize teachers for the remainder of the year—and can also provide critical clues about teacher well-being and retention.
Having quality conversations around professional learning gives you the opportunity to energize teachers for the remainder of the year—and can also provide critical clues about teacher well-being and retention.
Before you start: tips for a successful check-in
Prior to checking in with your teachers and staff, it’ll help to do a bit of pre-work. Here are a few ways to prepare for that conversation:
- Review your teachers’ goals. What professional learning have they engaged in so far, and what results did they expect to see?
- Review your own notes. Did you go on a series of learning walks earlier in the year, or sit in on specific classroom activities? Collect those observations to inform the discussion.
- Take care in introducing the check-ins. Make it clear that these conversations are formative, and in service of helping them grow. Encourage teachers to take an active role in the conversation, and ask that they bring anecdotal or quantitative data to the conversations.
Now that the pre-work is out of the way, here are four best practices and questions to consider as you’re preparing to have conversations with your teachers and staff about their professional learning goals:
What have you learned, and how have you implemented those learnings in your classroom?
This is an obvious question—and an important one. It’s easy to get excited about professional development at the beginning of a school year, when there’s plenty of time and no shortage of ideas. As the year progresses, those same goals move to the bottom of the to-do list.
It’s easy to get excited about professional development at the beginning of a school year, when there’s plenty of time and no shortage of ideas. As the year progresses, those same goals move to the bottom of the to-do list.
Like any good plan, professional learning needs strong implementation and accountability to truly be successful. For school leaders, it’s an opportunity to help teachers refocus on why these particular goals were important to them, how they address student needs, and how they’ve been able to implement what they’ve learned. Here are a few other questions to deepen the conversation:
- How did you come to make this change in your classroom? What was the process?
- In what ways do you see this new strategy or initiative affecting your students and improving student engagement and student learning outcomes?
- In what ways do you see this new strategy or teaching goal affecting you? What are you able to do differently? How has your teaching practice changed?
With these questions, you—and your teachers—might realize their professional development goals are actually about so much more than what they might have considered at the outset. For example, a teacher’s goal might have been to learn how to use a digital tool with more proficiency, but through the process discovered that it also helped students take more ownership of their own learning. Uncovering and elevating these insights can help teachers truly connect their professional learning to the success of their students.
What is the PD goal you’re going to set for the remainder of the school year, and how can I help you reach that goal?
In talking with your teachers, you might discover that there’s a specific professional learning area or set of skills they want to focus on through the end of the year. This is a great opportunity to provide a bit of coaching. What do they hope to achieve with these efforts, and how will they know they’re successful? And, perhaps the most important question: can you do anything to ensure that success?
One simple way to help more educators reach those reinforced learning goals is to encourage them to find a “professional development” buddy. This could mean finding a teacher with similar professional goals, or simply someone they can use as a resource to help them grow as an educator—a teacher they might have met at a conference, or someone they follow on social media.
And, remember to take a moment to ask your teachers about their accountability plan. If it’s a series of webinars they’d like to watch, do they have a schedule for completion? If it’s a new strategy in the classroom, might it make sense to have one of their colleagues observe them and give feedback?
Independent of professional learning work, how are you doing? And are you staying?
A professional learning check-in also allows you a moment to understand how your teachers are really doing. Even though the sun might be shining a bit more than it did in the months prior, spring comes with its own slump. It’s also the time when educators begin deciding whether or not they’re going to return to school next fall.
Even though the sun might be shining a bit more than it did in the months prior, spring comes with its own slump. It’s also the time when teachers begin deciding whether or not they’re going to return to school next fall.
When your team is unhappy or frustrated, it will take more than a conversation about teacher goals to make them feel heard and seen. Use this time to check in on the well-being of your teachers and staff by asking some simple, open-ended questions that allow them to share as much or little as they feel comfortable with:
- Are you finding ways to take care of yourself during the day? What does that look like?
- What’s the most rewarding part of your day right now? The most stressful?
- Is there anything I can do to make the situation better?
- Is there anything else I should know?
These questions set the stage for “stay conversations,” where you can gain valuable input from teachers and staff members you want to retain. In stay interviews, top-performing teachers and high-potential staff members are asked what factors would trigger a departure from the school, or why they might consider leaving their position. It’s never too late to have these conversations and to act on their feedback. Best practice is to ask, rather than not asking at all.
What is your vision for future professional learning?
As your teachers are taking the steps to wrap up one portion of their professional learning journeys, it’s never too early to start talking about goals for next year—especially if this year’s work has laid a solid foundation for future efforts that advance school improvement or increase student achievement.
Here’s where it’s critical to encourage your teachers to think about what their own professional vision looks like—and help them anchor their future professional learning plan to that vision.
Here are additional questions to ignite this conversation:
- When you think about your teaching practice or classroom over the next few years, what would you like to change or shift?
- In the next year ahead, what would you like to continue, stop, or begin doing?
- How would you like to grow as an educator, colleague, and person?
- What professional development opportunities or goals will help you get closer to your vision?
These questions make it easier for educators to see their professional learning plans and goals as a true journey, and can help them better craft the different components and steps that need to happen in their long-range plans.
It’s never too late for a check-in
Conversations about what your teachers are learning, how their teaching practices have changed, and where they might still need support are always right on time. They're an essential part of your educational leadership.
Not only do your teachers have an opportunity to talk candidly about their progress (and student progress too), they can recommit to their learning, if necessary. And you’re able to use the discussion as a springboard for addressing related topics with your team, such as teacher burnout and teacher turnover. In the end, check-in conversations help propel your teachers closer to achieving their goals and the school to driving more student success.